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U.N. Report Describes The Impact Of War On Iraqi Civilians


A new report from the U.N. documents the devastating effect of the war in Iraq on civilians there. Around 20,000 people have been killed since Islamic State militants started seizing control of Iraqi towns two years ago. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us from Baghdad with details. Hi, Alice.


SHAPIRO: How are these civilians dying?

FORDHAM: Well, if you look over the timeframe of this report, the big spike in violence was in August 2014, which, if you remember, is when ISIS did their big land grab. They took the city of Mosul and a bunch of other areas. And what happened then was they killed a lot of people - civilians, people from the security forces, religious minorities, Shiite Muslims, people they consider apostates. And what's happened since then is that the people who are most likely to be killed by ISIS, those people have fled in a huge wave of displacement or, honestly, they've been killed. The report also has chilling details of mass graves.

So in the last year or so, the pattern has changed, and most of the recorded civilian deaths are in Baghdad, and they're from ISIS bombings. The report also has a lot of details of deaths and rights abuses by other armed groups in Iraq. It's not just ISIS. There's security forces accidentally hitting civilian areas - airstrikes. It's not really made clear if they're Iraqi airstrikes, although they could be strikes by the U.S.-led coalition hitting civilians, and government-allied militias, too, abducting people who aren't heard of again, besides things like destroying property.

SHAPIRO: Does the report really say much about what's going on inside ISIS-held areas?

FORDHAM: Yeah. It's - you know, it's well-known that the group imposes harsh laws and violent punishments. But there's a lot more detail in the report. One thing it has that I didn't know before is that the U.N. has verified that in June last year somewhere between 800 and 900 children were abducted in the city of Mosul. Those aged between 5 and 10 were placed in a religious education camp. Those aged between 10 and 15 are sent for military training. The group goes around universities and schools telling people that they will have to join the group as fighters when they pass their current exams. There's a report that the U.N. says it's been able to verify 18 males under the age of 18 being executed for running away from the fighting.

All the violence by different groups outlined in the report can - I think it can remind us that ISIS is just one of many violent actors in Iraq. But there's also reminders that what's different about them is not just the scale of the killing but the way that they do it. It's always for public consumption. There's people accused of homosexuality being thrown from buildings. There's an instance where a man was executed and then displayed from a bridge. And then there are details of people from the Yazidi religious minority who are still enslaved.

SHAPIRO: Just horrible details - what else does the report say about Yazidis who we know ISIS has specifically targeted?

FORDHAM: Well, the report suggests there are about 3,500 Yazidis who are still held by ISIS. Some are women and some are men. The women - it's thought - are likely to be sex slaves. Many of them are likely to be in Syria or, in fact, not in Iraq. The number might have gone down a bit since the time of the report, which ends at the end of October. A lot of people in northern Iraq, which is the Yazidi heartland, told me they're essentially buying back their relatives.

SHAPIRO: The U.N.'s high commissioner called the casualty numbers obscene. Does the U.N. make recommendations in this report?

FORDHAM: Yeah. The report urges things like all parties observing international humanitarian law and investigating abuses. In the long term, I think the U.N., like lots of other players, has called for political reconciliation in Iraq, in addition to military success against ISIS. In the short term, speaking to the humanitarian branches of the organization, I know they're desperately worried about the millions of displaced people here and who's going to look after them. The U.N. says that it has funding shortfalls, and Iraq is suffering from low oil prices, and it's going to struggle to feed and shelter people.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Thank you, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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